Art Business: Warm-Up Exercises for Artists

13 Sep 2008

Warm-up exercises are as important for artists as they are for musicians and athletes.

by Daniel Grant

Warm-ups for artists often involve being spontaneous, loosening up your muscles, and letting go. But jogging might work too!
Warm-ups for artists often involve being spontaneous, loosening up your muscles,
and letting go. But jogging might work too!

Athletes stretch before a game. Prior to performing, opera singers sing scales, and actors practice their lines. Warm-up time is important in a variety of fields where people rely on their brains and muscles, loosening those muscles and focusing the mind on the task at hand. Artists, too, often need to focus their attention and make sure that their hand and eyes are in sync, so that they can make the most of their time in the studio and propel their art business forward with confidence in their own work.

Students at workshops are often given warm-up activities, which may last a few minutes or extend for an hour or more. “Most of my students are not professional artists,” says Cathy Locke, a California artist whose one-day, seven-hour portraiture and figure-painting workshops start with two hours of quick drawings on paper before students tackle the canvas. “Outside of the workshop, many of them are caregivers or work in a field that has nothing to do with art. They need to narrow their focus, warm up the eye to what’s in front of them, and get the clutter out of their minds.”

Locke says the process of getting grounded, or being present, involves warming up both the artists’ senses (of tone, texture, composition) and their ability to translate what they see to the paper or canvas. Simply making the first mark can be a struggle. “There’s not a lot invested in these quick studies,” she says, “and that helps free up the students.”

Debbie Cannatella, a Texas painter and art teacher, tries to break through students’ worries about making mistakes and maintaining control with warm-up exercises that treat ordinary household objects (such as a fork or a wrench) as abstract images. “I find that people get hung up if they draw something and it doesn’t come out looking like the object,” she notes. “If they’re not worried about making a carbon copy of that object on the paper, they can let go of their fear of drawing.”

According to Robert Burridge, a California painter who teaches numerous workshops, many students are overly focused on the final product. “I tell people that it doesn’t have to look like something and be ready to sell,” Burridge says. “You can just have fun.” He says he hands out 6"-x-9" pieces of paper—”so they don’t feel they’ve wasted a good piece of watercolor paper”—and asks students to paint action words taken from a thesaurus. There may be five or six words, and for each word they get one minute to communicate the concept visually in a painterly or graphic way. Between each one the students show what they did and talk about it. “There’s a lot of laughing. I’ll be ready to move on, and they’ll say, ‘Give us more of these,’” the artist points out. He also says his workshop participants cherish these little drawings, and that the exercise adds to the camaraderie of the class.

For Burridge, the warm-ups are an opportunity to be spontaneous and noncerebral. “It quickly gets students into the creative side of their brains,” he explains. On the occasions when he hasn’t done these exercises, he has found that students are scared of doing something wrong. “I just have a harder time getting them into the painting mode,” he says.

Burridge uses the same kind of warm-ups in his own studio practice, creating hundreds of small artworks based on words over the course of a year that he mats and takes to art fairs and workshops, selling them for $150 apiece. “Before I do any major painting, I do many playful, ‘goofing-around’ warm-ups with my acrylic paint—it’s like paint sketching,” he says. “It’s all about communication. I do at least six one-minute warm-up paintings in my studio every morning before I jump into a full sheet of watercolor paper or large canvas. My warm-up method is meant to be pure play, getting ready for more ‘serious’ efforts for galleries and festivals. It seems to me that too many artists stop thinking of art as fun.”

Aside from a few painters such as Burridge, it is rare for professional artists to do warm-up exercises. Artists frequently create preliminary studies and models for larger paintings and sculptures, but that has more to do with working out technical details than with warming up. Ray Roberts, a California painter who regularly teaches workshops, says he recommends that his students initially paint a subject in black and white “to enable them to see how the composition will look,” but Roberts says that when he goes into his studio, he already knows how he is going to approach a painting.

Pennsylvania watercolorist Frank Webb frequently begins a landscape painting by mapping out a smaller-size image in monochrome on inexpensive paper, scribbling notes on the side. “I think it’s important to get the design down first so that when I’m painting I can concentrate on the color and interpretation.” A regular workshop leader as well as an exhibiting artist, Webb believes in drawing or painting quick, full-size gesture poses when working from a live model before moving on to a lengthier pose.

Some artists avoid preliminaries, believing that additional steps in the process take away from the initial impetus that led them to want to paint the image in the first place. “Once I’ve done a study,” says California painter William Wray, “I often don’t want to do the final or more finished version. I like the danger of attacking the canvas with no preliminary work whatsoever.” Still, preliminary studies answer many of an artist’s questions, and they can also lead to discoveries. Says Locke, “There may be happy accidents that work their way into the final painting.”   



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